illustrated portrait of American writer Louisa May Alcott

Work: A Story of Experience

by Louisa May Alcott

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

Christie Devon is on a quest for self-fulfillment through meaningful work. Her quest involves themes of feminist independence and the search for moral and communal values. Strikingly, in the novel's first sentence Christie announces to her aunt "a new Declaration of Independence." Her personal independence seems to Christie a primary goal when she is an inexperienced young adult, but even then she possesses a budding feeling of outreach to others. She says that she will be satisfied if she can earn her living "honestly and happily," and leave a beautiful example behind" that will at least "help one other woman." The spirit of community is implicit at the outset of Christie's search. A "useful, happy woman" cannot exist alone.

Christie's various work experiences teach moral lessons along with social duties. The first job, as a maid, introduces Christie to demeaning conditions and bad pay. She also learns humility and abolitionist sympathy from a fellow servant. When Christie moves on to become an actress, she finds the financial benefits do not compensate for the vanity the work insidiously fosters. Next, as a governess, Christie learns the emptiness of idle wealth and rejects a condescending proposal from her employer's indolent brother. The next job, companion to a mentally unbalanced young woman, teaches Christie the tragedy that can befall a family in which a mother's materialistic ambition reigns.

Then, as a seamstress, Christie opposes the firing of a "fallen" woman on account of her past, even though the woman was trying to rebuild her life through honest work. When support of her co-worker gets her fired too, the loss of a steady income plunges Christie, now near thirty, into suicidal despair. The episode powerfully crowns the developing theme of women frustrated by a society that prevents them from taking care of themselves, no matter how willing they are or how hard they try. Christie's healing through life with the Sterlings illustrates the theme that domesticity is needed, good and fulfilling, so long as it is carried on in a spirit of equality, among friends.

The central feminist theme, which ties equality and community service to happiness and usefulness for women, is carried forward after Christie marries. Both partners participate in the Union cause until David is fatally wounded. "You will do my part," David tells Christie on his deathbed, "and do it better than I could." Christie does succeed with his greenhouse business, operating it on a socially conscious, collective basis. A woman can replace a man, and excel in his role. The novel ends with Christie and other women touching hands, forming "a loving league of sisters, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, each ready to do her part to hasten the coming of the happy end." For Christie, interdependence has replaced independence.

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